TL Audio VTC
The TL Audio VTC (Valve Technology Console) has been two years in development with designer David Kempson. The ex-Neve project leader was also responsible for the hugely successful (and recently upgraded) TL Audio Classic Valve series. The long-standing association with Tony Larking Professional Audio Sales started with Kempson designing the EQ-1 for Larking. Kempson now runs a factory employing 14 people designing and manufacturing TL Audio outboard units and HHB-badged versions for US distribution.
The VTC came about partly because certain TL Audio customers expressed a desire for a console with similar sound quality to the famous outboard modules. Also, the demand for used classic consoles such as vintage Neves increases as their availability inevitably decreases, creating an obvious niche for a desk such as this. And surely a brand-new desk, without all the foibles, unreliability and inevitable irritating customisations of a twenty- or thirty-year-old desk, is very appealing. Many digital-based facilities will undoubtedly see the attraction of a console featuring valve circuitry. The first production VTC, a 32-channel model, has been sold to UFO Studios in Berlin. I was lucky enough to have a chance to try it before it was shipped.
An eight-buss design, the VTC is available in sizes from 16 to 56 channels, extendable in banks of eight channels. However, unlike the typical project studio 8-buss console, each channel is a separate module, conventionally mounted with two edge connectors. This in itself qualifies the console as professional and ‘proper’. VTCs can be extended at a later date with additional channel banks. Each channel includes three vertically mounted ribbon-interconnected PCBs, only a few inches deep, featuring an array of socketed chips and other components. There are no valves here though. The twin triode for each channel is mounted vertically on a ceramic base in the rear section behind the top of the channel strips. There is a valve on every microphone amplifier, monitor return and buss amplifier (including the mix busses). The surface is gently raked when the console is sat level on the (optional) sturdy stand, which gives plenty of knee-space underneath, due to the particularly shallow channel boards.
The top panel of each channel bank can be removed to access the calibration trim-pots for each valve. The control surface is unsurprisingly very cool, and even the section containing the valves is only mildly warm, despite the valves operation at around 200 volts stabilised DC. Plenty of venting around this area helps, and also provides the operator with a glimpse of the glowing valves. Although the desk itself is cool, the remote power supply – a 3U affair for the 32-channel desk I tried – runs extremely hot.
The VTC looks terrific, with heavy American oak side cheeks and front trim lending the desk a classic appearance, reminiscent of old Neves and Tridents. The control surface is a smart uniform deep blue, similar to that of the Classic Valve outboard range. All knobs are large and pleasantly damped, having an ‘oily’ feel to them. They are secured by collet nut, so no screw or nut is visible with the cap on, and a sensible variation of cap colours guides the user around the channel. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the pushbuttons, whose uniform grey colour makes things slightly confusing, especially alongside the fader where there is a long row of switches. To a newcomer it is not immediately clear whether legending refers to the button above or the one below. The other problem with the buttons is that very few are accompanied by an LED, and their travel is quite shallow, so one cannot immediately spot which buttons are depressed. This could potentially lead to disaster or embarrassment, especially with the routing buttons. Generally, though, the layout is spacious and uncluttered, bucking the trend of other modern consoles that cram many small controls into a small area.
The Input section of each channel features a preamplifier similar to that of the outboard PA-1. A single Gain knob controls microphone and line gain, (centre détented for Line), a button marked LINE switches these inputs. Switches for Phase and 48V phantom power sensibly reside here. A useful 90Hz high pass filter can be switched in here, the same as that on the C-1, (12dB per octave). A FLIP button effectively reverses the faders, but the small fader cannot be routed to the eight busses. A monitor trim allows +/-20dB of gain for the monitor input, so all sorts of devices can be interfaced. There are also internal jumpers to allow +4 or –10dB operating levels. Each channel features eight Auxiliary Sends. Sends 1-4 feature individual On buttons and rotary pots. Sends 1 and 2 are always postfade. Sends 3 and 4 can be switched to route to send outputs 5 and 6 or Mix B (the Monitors’ mix buss), and can be switched pre- or post-fade. Sends 7 and 8 are controlled by a single Level pot and a Panpot, and are switchable pre- or post-fade, and routable to Mix B. All in all, this is a very flexible system, and in combination with the central section Phones routing (more of which later), a very well thought-out arrangement.
The EQ section is arranged below the Aux send section and is within easy reach of the seated engineer. This is a four-band EQ with two fully parametric mids and fixed shelving High and Low frequency sections at 12kHz and 80Hz respectively, each with up to 15dB gain or cut. All Gain knobs are centre-détented. The parametric EQ bands are variable between half-octave and five-octave bandwidths, enabling rich wah-wah sweeping or gentle sound shaping. High Mid ranges from an indicated 500Hz right up to 18kHz. Low Mid is indicated from 50Hz to 2kHz. Small boosts or cuts are easy to achieve, as the gain is very gentle during the first 60 degrees or so. At maximum 15dB boost however, there is real power. I found the whole character of the EQ remarkably forgiving, and a joy to use.
The monitor section includes a 60mm fader which routes to Mix B. This stereo buss can be routed to the main Left and Right outputs or sourced from its own dedicated outputs. Unlike the knobs, all faders are undamped and extremely light in operation, making the ends of fades tricky. The monitor section includes switches to enable either the two EQ mid-bands or the HF and LF bands (or both) to operate on the monitor section instead of the channel – a very useful feature. Oddly, these sections switch on in the monitor path irrespective of the status of the EQ On button. There is also a button marked SRCE, which takes the channel source and feeds it to the monitor fader as well. The square Mute buttons on both channel and monitor are pleasant to operate, illuminating red when muted. Both channel and monitor faders are accompanied by Solo buttons with accompanying LED. PFL is the default mode, but the centre section features a Solo-In-Place button. In this mode, Monitor and Channel mute buttons are linked, so this is really only useful when mixing. Incidentally, on the review model there were no visible channel numbers, but I was assured they would be printed on the channel mute buttons and a scribble strip below the large channel faders. Both faders are accompanied by a panpot with centre détente, and green Signal and red Peak LEDs. These light at –30dB and +18dB respectively.
With headroom of +26dB these are sensibly set, and extremely useful, as channel meters are not provided as standard. These will be optional: a 16 segment LED bargraph for each channel, globally switchable between tape out and tape return, sitting atop the rear of the mixer. Each bank is provided with a 25-pin DL socket for their connection. The meters that are provided as standard are beautiful rear-illuminated vintage-style VUs, one for each buss, and two for the main output. These look similar to those found on 1960’s EMI TG series desks and look superb, with arrow-headed needle pointers. A tiny red peak LED accompanies each meter, and the centre section additionally features Power and Solo LEDs.
A routing buttons for each pair of busses accompanies the channel fader. By default, each channel’s individual output works as a direct tape track output. However, by pressing down the Buss button, the output is sourced from the related buss 1 to 8. For example, buss 1 will also feed the tape outputs of channels 9, 17 and 25 if those channels’ Buss buttons are pressed. There is also a L/R routing button, which sends the channel signal (postfade) to the main outputs.
Although automation is not standard, both monitor and channel faders are accompanied by dedicated automation buttons. A momentary Status button and a latching Auto button are in place, ready for whatever system the customer would like to order: there is no ‘in-house’ automation available as yet. VCAs are not standard but faders simply plug in, so moving faders are an attractive possibility. With automation on both monitors and channels a huge amount of flexibility is possible. Incidentally, research is presently taking place into the possibility of a desk with digital control of all functions.
The centre section features individual master Gains, Mute and AFL buttons for the Auxiliary Sends. There are a generous six stereo returns, each featuring a balance control which becomes a panpot if only the left input is connected. There is a fader for each return, along with AFL and Mute switches. These are also accompanied with routing to the two Phones busses. An Oscillator sends to all busses and main outputs, selectable between 1kHz or 10kHz. A socket is provided for a talkback microphone, which can be routed to tape, studio, and the two Phones circuits, with one overall level control. Pressing Talkback also dims control room level, possibly slightly too much. The two Phones circuits are wonderfully flexible, enabling stereo foldback, which can be sourced from any (or all) of the following: Control Room, Mix B, Aux 3 and 4, Aux 7 and 8 and Ext.
The Control Room monitoring section features a PFL trim +/-20dB, a switch for Alt Loudspeakers and a Mono button. Monitoring can be sourced from the main L/R buss, Mix B, either of two 2-track inputs or an External stereo input. The large volume knob has a pleasant feel. Adjacent is the Studio monitor section, with similar sourcing options. This section can usefully be set to follow Control Room selection.
Full-length faders are provided for Buss masters. They can be switched On to route to the main buss and Soloed. Automation buttons accompany the Master fader.
On the review model all connections were rear-mounted. XLRs are provided for Microphone inputs and Main Outputs. Most other connectors are balanced TRS jacks. These are provided for Line and Monitor input, Channel (tape) output (confusingly labelled DI/Group) and Return inputs. Inserts are unbalanced Tip-send Ring-return Sleeve-ground jacks, and Aux send outputs are unbalanced. An internal Mosses and Mitchell bantam patchbay is optional. Alternatively, the console can be supplied with flying leads for connection to an external patchbay. In this case, just the XLR microphone inputs are left on the back.
Sound quality is excellent: -1dB 10Hz-40kHz is quoted, and the low-end sounds particularly good. Distortion from channel to buss to L/R is claimed as typically 0.017% across all frequencies. Whilst noise is acceptable, this is probably not the quietest desk in the world. However, a warm and open sound with great coherence is the VTC’s strongest attribute. It is very flexible and simple to use. Solidly built in the finest traditions of British console design, it seems that TL Audio have identified a gap in the market and intend to exploit the situation to their best ability. Although significantly more expensive than most 8-buss desks, the competitive pricing makes one wonder how the big boys justify their stately-home-sized prices. And this is the only valve console on the market. Call me predictable, but I want one…
Reproduced with kind permission from www.George.Shilling.Com. Copyright ©
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